Dear Dependents of the United States Air Force:
Welcome to your new duty assignment, Kadena Air Base, Okinawa.
Okinawa is the principal island of the 160 islands that make up the Ryukyu archipelago. Only 67 miles long and from 2 to 17 miles wide, Okinawa is often referred to as the "Keystone of the Pacific" because of its strategic Far East location roughly 900 miles from Tokyo, Manila, Seoul, and Hong Kong.
Originally an independent nation, Okinawa has endured long periods of both Chinese and Japanese domination. After World War II, the island remained under U.S. military control. The United States will continue its custodianship as long as conditions of threat and tension exist in the Far East.
Bear in mind as you begin your tour that the serviceman's family is just as much a representative of the United States Government as the serviceman himself.
Your President and Commander in Chief,
Lyndon Baines Johnson
On the map on the back of the pamphlet, Japan resembles a horned caterpillar rearing up in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. My destination, the Ryukyu Islands, trails behind like a scatter of droppings. We've been in the air for seventeen hours. Sheets of rain snake across the plastic pane of the window next to me. A light on the wing blinks red in the night. Lulled by the drone of the jet engines taking me to join my family stationed on Kadena Air Base, I slide back into the anesthetized stupor that travel always induces.
Phenobarbital, that was my mother, Moe's, drug of choice for traveling with six children packed into a station wagon when we PCS'd--Permanent Change of Station--six times in eight years. We, her children, took the drug, not Moe. A nurse, she administered the meticulously titrated doses in tiny chips that floated like specks of goldfish food in our cups of apple juice.
"How else was I supposed to keep you from murdering each other?" Moe had answered when I inquired about the peculiar lassitude that always seemed to overtake us upon departing Maxwell Air Force Base, or Travis, or Harlingen, or Brooks, or Kirtland, or Mountain Home Air Force Base. Especially Mountain Home. All I remember about leaving that base was pulling out of Boise, Idaho, with my breath freezing in the predawn mountain chill and regaining consciousness outside of Tonopah, Nevada, with a bib of drool and my nasal linings dried to corn flakes.
"You drugged us? Your children? You drugged us?"
"I thought about running a hose in from the exhaust pipe. That really would have quieted you down."
"You drugged us?"
"Think about it, Bernie. Six kids, two of them in diapers when we transferred out of Japan, crammed into a station wagon with the luggage strapped on top and a maniac behind the wheel who wouldn't stop unless you put a gun to his head. Me passing around the bologna sandwiches and the potty chair, sprinkling the cars behind us when the potty can got full. And the whole time I'm wrestling with a map the size of the Magna Carta and trying to navigate for a guy used to getting directions off a radar screen who keeps barking at me to do something about my children. No, I didn't have a lot of patience left to deal with Kit screaming about you 'breathing' on her or you screaming about Kit 'looking' at you or the twins hammering monkey bumps and noogies and X no-backs into each other and Bosco wailing about whatever hamster or turtle or corn snake she had to leave behind at the last base and Bob reenacting entire episodes Clutch Cargo and someone, usually you, barfing."
"Yeah, but what if you've turned us all into junkies?"
"Well, if I have, all I can say is that I did the best I knew how and you lived to tell the tale. That's all I can say."
It was during an unmedicated moment on the long hot drive out of Idaho that we all, all us sibs, realized we hated our ultra-Hibernian Catholic names. No one else at our new schools would be named after saints famous for being enucleated or having their tongues plucked out with pliers. We wanted regular names. So, as Moe passed around the potty seat, we rechristened ourselves with the most normal, most American names we could each think of. The twins, Frances Xavier and Bryan Patrick, chose Buzz and Abner. Joseph Anthony, just three at the time, selected Bob, since it was not only a great name and easy to spell but also his favorite aquatic activity. No one wanted me to change Bernie. Mary Colleen, our youngest sister, declared that henceforth she would be known as Nancy, her book-loving soul released in ecstasy at the thought of sharing Nancy Drew's name.
"Nancy?" We'd all hooted in unison. We'd already given her the perfect name, Bosco, when she was two and loved Bosco Chocolate Syrup, and we weren't swapping it for some girl detective in a roadster.
"Okay," Bosco had agreed. "But in my mind I'm still calling myself Nancy, and you can't stop me."
"The name represents the self," my father said from the driver's seat, flicking a white Tums out of a foil roll into his mouth. "A rejection of the name represents a rejection of the self. You all hate yourselves."
We exchanged fiendish looks and had to agree. "Yeah, we all hate ourselves."
"Eileen is the only one showing any sense."
But it wasn't sense my middler sister was showing; it was concentration. She glowed like a full-immersion Baptist bursting to the surface of the tank when she finally revealed, "My new name is Kitty."
"Kitty?" Moe echoed.
"Okay, Kit. Kit Root."
As Moe dealt out Sioux Bee honey and peanut butter sandwiches, I glanced at Buzz, Abner, Bob, and Bosco and wondered what we'd unloosed. It was clear that Eileen wasn't getting the joke. Worse, with her platinum-blond hair and Siamese-cat blue eyes, the name Kit fit her too well.
At our new schools, we all registered under our real names and only called one another Buzz, Abner, Bob, Bosco, and Bernie at home. But Eileen died that day and never again answered to anything, anywhere, except Kit.
Maybe it was the phenobarbital; still, even without chemical amendments, moving, the part after the packers left but before I became the new girl, a spot I tended to occupy until the packers came again, was always the coziest time in my life. Just me and the sibs and Moe, sealed up in our mobile incubator hurtling down the highway, stuck to the vinyl seat covers, glued to one another with sweat, everyone oozing together, breathing the breaths a sister or brother had exhaled a hundred miles ago. Just us. No outsiders. Outsiders--which is to say, anyone that Moe had not brought into this world--and my family did not mix. We'd only allowed an outsider into the family once.
Fumiko. Of course I'm thinking about Fumiko again. The first time I crossed the Pacific I was six years old, twelve years ago, and heading for the horned caterpillar itself, not the droppings. Fumiko became part of our family the day we landed in Japan and was one of us for four years. Bob hadn't even been born when we PCS'd out of Japan eight years ago, and Bosco was barely two, so they don't remember Fumiko at all. The twins, who'd hung on to her like orangutan babies for the first three years of their lives, have no memory of her either. Kit probably does, though it's hard to tell since Kit speaks to me as little as possible and Fumiko's name was never mentioned again after we left Japan anyway.
But I know Moe remembers Fumiko, and our father, and me--of course, me. Of course I remember Fumiko.
The Okinawa-bound plane hits an air pocket and belly-flops a few hundred feet. My seatmate, Tammi, grips my arm, digging her pearlized pink nails into my flesh. Tammi looks only slightly older than my sister Kit, who is seventeen. But Tammi is on her way to Okinawa so that her baby daughter, Brandi, can meet her father for the first time. The cabin lights flicker, and Tammi and I look to the front of the plane to see if the stewardi are freaking in any manifest way.
"The pilot just rotated out of Nam." Tammi has made this observation every time the plane wobbled for the past seventeen hours since we left Travis. The implication is that if a pilot is good enough to survive Vietnam, surely he can get a planeload of dependents, mostly wives and small children traveling Space Available, delivered safely to Okinawa.
Tammi looks the way my two sisters and three brothers, certainly my parents, expect me to look. A year ago, they'd left me behind at the University of New Mexico when my father was transferred to Kadena Air Base on Okinawa. They'd said good-bye to a sister, a daughter, who set her Breck-washed hair into a flip on pink foam rollers. Who wore Villager blouses with coordinating pleated kilts held closed with an oversize gold pin above the knee. Who had a pair of tortoiseshell cat's-eye glasses correcting her vision, a white-cotton circular-stitched brassiere shielding her breasts, Weejun loafers covering her clean feet, and Heaven Sent cologne perfuming her thoroughly deodorized and depilated self.
When I stepped off the plane they would behold a vagrant in Levi's with peace-sign patches stitched to her ass and hems frayed to a dirty fringe from being trod upon by a pair of water-buffalo-hide sandals held on by one ring around the big toe. Who parted her straight hair in the middle and left it to hang lank as old drapes on either side of a groovy new pair of John Lennon wire rims. Who'd substituted patchouli oil for Heaven Sent and had discarded deodorant, depilation, and undergarments altogether.
For the past year, I had breathed civilian oxygen for the first time in my life. It caused me to forget that I was the daughter of Major Mason Patrick Root, just as much a representative of the United States as the serviceman himself. It caused me to join an antiwar group on campus, Damsels in Dissent.
I started to remember who I was at Travis Air Force Base, where I had to hang around reading The Confessions of Nat Turner while my request for a Space A flight worked its way through MATS. Just the acronyms for Space Available and Military Air Transport System were enough to resuscitate me with the air I'd inhaled for the past eighteen years. I was returning to a world where officer fathers lost their jobs when sons didn't mow the lawn, when daughters dated GIs, or when mothers misbehaved too often at Happy Hour. Who knew what happened when offspring allied themselves with groups that advised draftees to swallow balls of tinfoil and put laundry detergent in their armpits to fool induction center doctors?
As we fly deeper and deeper into a world that is entirely military, I push that question out of my mind even further than I bury the memory of Fumiko. I've long since finished with Nat Turner and, desperate for the narcotizing effect of moving my eyes across print, I start on the pamphlet again. I don't get very far before lightning flashes outside the window. Almost simultaneously, thunder booms. Baby Brandi trembles, sucks her lip in, and wails. A crack of lightning explodes, and the clouds outside are illuminated in a battlefield flash of pale violet and gray.
Finally, the clouds part, and far below there is, at last, something visible in the darkness. Like a handkerchief tossed onto an endless field of mud, the island of Okinawa appears in the galaxy of black that is the night and the Pacific Ocean.
It seems impossible that they are all down there: my parents; Kit; the twins, Buzz and Abner; my little sister and brother, Bosco and Bob. It seems even more improbable that this plane is going to land on such a minute button of light.
Abruptly the plane slews to the side so violently that luggage bins pop open and diaper bags and duffels shoot into the air. All the babies and children cry. The stewardesses at the front are ashen-faced and stare at each other, wide-eyed, stricken. The smell of vomit, dirty diapers, and fear spikes through the cabin.
The older stewardess speaks into a microphone. "Remain in your seats with your seat belts fastened." She has on chalky lipstick that makes her teeth look yellow. She tries to get the younger stewardess up to help her stuff bags back into overhead bins, but the younger one shakes her head and tightens the belt holding her into her seat facing us. Seeing open fear on a stewardess's face ignites panic in the cabin. The older stewardess crimps her lips in disgust and wades into the aisle.
Lightning flashes continuously on all sides. A bolt crackles against the plane. Women scream as the thunder explodes. The older stewardess tries to speak through her microphone, but a roar of static is all that comes out.
Mascara-blackened tears streak Tammi's cheeks.
The woman behind me begins to pant as if she were giving birth. Another woman sitting on the aisle turns in her seat and tells us in a weirdly conversational tone, "Pray, everyone, okay? Just pray to Jesus."
But I am already praying to the Blessed Virgin Mary. She's much more likely to be interested in a plane filled with mothers and children.
The plane bucks violently and the brave stewardess is thrown to the floor. The panting woman behind me screams like a sleeper trying to wake from the nightmare of her own death. Full-scale panic breaks out, with all the dependent wives and all their children sobbing and ululating like Berbers.
Tammi turns to me and, in a voice as calm as if she were reporting how much apples were selling for at the base commissary, tells me, "We're going to die."
On the plane, all noise and all smells stop. Next to me, Tammi's face is red and squinched up from crying, but all I hear is the roar of an airplane's engine. I look around and see the older stewardess fight to get to her feet and the woman who wanted us all to pray to Jesus snatch at her so the stewardess falls down again, but I hear nothing.
Once again, I am the overwrought, unhealthily imaginative child prone to nervous attacks and stomach disorders with a neurotic attachment to my mother and a dangerous dependence upon sugar that I was on my first trip over these waters, and I understand that we are seconds away from going down in a storm over the East China Sea. That everyone will die except for the cowardly young stewardess, who will trample a set of twins and the pilot to escape before the plane sinks, sucking everyone else into the night-black sea.
From the Hardcover edition.